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Stories That Matter: How Time Released a BIPOC-Led Issue With Journalists Covering Their Own Communities
A conversation with Lucy Feldman, the lead editor of a first-of-its-kind magazine issue, and Sanya Mansoor.
The second in a special multi-part series that takes a look at journalists who are covering their own communities, and how their personal ties to the subjects they report on allows them to be stronger confidants and better storytellers.
Following the events of summer 2020, employees at Time decided it was important to highlight key issues and amplify strong voices. In May of 2021 the magazine put out a special BIPOC-led issue on the fight for racial justice and building a better world. “Visions of Equity” was the first of its kind as it was written largely by BIPOC employees at the magazine and solely about issues relating to BIPOC communities globally. The initiative was led by Senior Editor Lucy Feldman.
Shortly before the issue came to be, Feldman started a resource group organized by staffers for BIPOC employees and then spearheaded the creation of the issue, supporting her writers along the way. Reporter Sanya Mansoor was one such writer who joined the issue and shared a bit about what it’s like being a Muslim journalist and writing about Muslim issues for Time. This personal essay was included with seven others in a special piece that had Time journalists reflecting on covering their communities over the past year — a year that was extremely hard for a multitude of reasons. The essays from the staff were real, at times uncomfortable, and at times critical of their workplace, but as Feldman shared in our conversation, Time leadership is working hard to make sure that they oversee a safe and supportive place to work for their BIPOC staff.
“Longstanding journalistic maxims would have a reporter remain disengaged while gathering the facts,” read the opening statement from Time’s issue. “But pursuing the whole truth means considering the humanity of one’s subjects — and of oneself. Lived experience can help a reporter empathize and deepen their work in the service of telling stories that accurately reflect the world. After an intense year of reporting on stories about the struggles endured by people who share their identities, Time journalists reflect on the lessons they will carry forward in their work.”
Both Feldman and Mansoor share their stories of how the special issue came to be and how they felt working on it. The conversation also dives into how they feel covering their own communities and where their personal experience within these communities is a strength — not only for this special issue but for the publication as a whole. Feldman’s perspective as a senior editor is particularly insightful as she works closely with a handful of writers that are covering their own communities. The interviews have been edited for concision and clarity.
Lucy, You were really instrumental in bringing the entire BIPOC-led issue to fruition. Do you want to share a bit about how you got there? What made you want to do a BIPOC-led issue and what made you think Time would be open to it?
Feldman: Basically, I had been at Time since January of 2017 and always found it to be a great workplace. But, like most workplaces, as we’ve heard across the country, there are always little things. As an Asian-American editor, I feel it’s interesting that we treat stories about race the way that we do. I didn’t necessarily feel like that was something I would set out to change, but the summer of 2020 rolled around and so many of my colleagues were in such deep pain. With the pandemic, we were also isolated and I just had the impulse to create this ad hoc community that included anybody who identified as a person of color from across the organization, which included editorial and members of the business team as well.
We started getting together and chatting, sharing stories and perspectives, and encouraging each other; listening and being there for each other. What everybody was bringing to these really informal conversations was so interesting and smart. Everybody had these points of view that were different from what I was hearing in my own little family group or my own little editorial group. It seemed like a huge untapped resource really, for us as a media organization but also for anyone who just wanted to gain a little perspective of how other people were feeling during a really intense terrible time.
At the time, Time was planning an equity-focused large-scale project and I asked if we could get involved somehow, I was really grateful for how our editor-in-chief responded; it was always a very open, very welcoming situation, which I know is not the case everywhere. As we talked more, I realized I didn’t want to set this group up to not be able to deliver the fullest version of what we were able to do together. So we decided to wait and spend more time brainstorming and coming up with a project that could be fully our own. Then May of 2021 rolled around and we were ready to publish our full issue.
Sanya, you shared your perspective in this piece and have covered topics surrounding Islam and the Muslim community since then. How did you get involved? Were you asked to take part in that or was that something you asked to be involved in?
Mansoor: Yeah, that’s a good question. So that project actually came out of our BIPOC group and the leaders of that had been really pushing for a BIPOC-led issue where we would take ownership of a lot of that issue, either writing the articles ourselves or coming up with ideas ourselves ... but having kind of specific personal topics that speak to us in a way that we might not have access to in every single issue. And so as part of this BIPOC issue, one of the things we landed upon as a group was having these personal reflections about being a journalist. And they left it pretty open-ended, right? So they were like, “what is it like being a journalist from your community?” And initially, to be honest, I think because I always saw myself as a reporter first, I almost didn’t see myself writing a piece. I’m a reporter, I’m not an op-ed writer. So my initial instinct was I didn’t jump on it. And then I did have an internal dialogue asking, “Is there something unique I have to contribute to this?” I just didn’t know that I could make my experiences coherent in that way before I had really done it.
Then [Lucy] approached me and was like: “Hey, I think you’d be a great person to hear from in this essay. No pressure, but is this something you’re interested in?” And with that prodding, I decided to kind of reflect on my own experience. So I told her off the cuff, you know, these are the ways in which I thought about being a Muslim reporter, the way that it’s informed how I work, and the way that it has sometimes been a challenge, but also an asset. So, she gravitated toward that idea and was like, “give it a shot.” So that’s really how it came together. So it wasn’t that I came up with this idea out of the blue and it wasn’t just my standalone essay, but we did it together and all these essays were kind of like a kaleidoscope of, you know, where we’re at.
My essay wasn’t necessarily critical of Time, but what I did appreciate about this is that there were other essays in there that were critical of our workspace or some interactions that have been going on and it shows that no workplace is perfect. But there was something about this project and this honesty that I appreciated because I didn’t feel like I had to hold back. I wrote pretty honestly about my experience and, from reading the other essays, I feel like people were pretty candid in how they felt navigating some of the weighty decisions. Especially, you know, when you’re one of a few people from your racial or religious community in the newsroom. There’s almost that added weight of like: “Am I speaking for my community? Or am I just a reporter who happens to be something?”
Lucy, you were the head editor on the entire issue?
Feldman: Yes, I was.
Amazing. So what were your thoughts and feelings when you were looking at all of the pieces? Were you ever worried because of the classic Western audience that there would be push back? And did you care?
Feldman: That’s a great question. I did not care. I can’t even tell you if I really worried about it, I think that I didn’t because I felt such strong conviction about what we were setting out to do. When it came to the personal pieces, and also when it came to a piece by Janell Ross, one of our senior correspondents in the package, where she had spoken about something in her personal life that was really painful — of course, we all had conversations about the realities of putting things out there in the world about yourself and what might come back to individuals. I had published a personal essay after the Atlanta shooting and had gotten back some incredibly racist, misogynistic stuff that was really just disgusting and I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother me. So I wanted to make sure that anyone who was including personal material was fully aware of what could happen with that and that everyone was set up with protection.
We’re really lucky to have a great security officer who helps us with the nitty-gritty of what to do if you’re going to publish something sensitive. And it’s really unfortunate that these things are of concern at all, but myself personally working on this issue, I didn’t think about it much. And actually, when I got back to the office recently — we aren’t working there yet but I went back to clear out my desk and go through my mail — I did have some pretty extreme hate mail. It was so freaky. There was a picture of the editing team that ran in the print edition. They cut out the picture and pointed to my face, they were like, “you — go back to where you came from.” Just really vile ... but for every response like that there are so many more people just being so excited and moved by seeing an institution like Time going in this different direction.
It’s true. That issue, the work Time has been doing, the work you and your team have been doing, it’s changing the perception of what is accepted in journalism and the institution. I’m interested in hearing your perspective as an editor who is working with several journalists who are actively covering their own communities. Are you doing anything different or do you have any red flags to make sure that no one is getting too personal or venturing into a “bias” area?
Feldman: For this project, in particular, it was so personal to all of us and I think that we made that really clear to the reader. So, it wasn’t as much an issue. When you’re writing or editing personal material, those rules apply in different ways. But when I’m editing, for example, like Sanya’s pieces, we always have a conversation and I’ll ask her, “what’s your perspective on this story you’re pitching?” or often she will tell me, “Hey — the angle that you think is the most interesting one....” For example, the coverage of 9/11 and what stories she might want to report on Muslims in America over the last 20 years. I had come up with an angle that I thought was really compelling. And she was like: “I see why you would think that! But actually, for Muslims in America, this other thing is much more relevant and I think we should do this instead.” I appreciate that so much. Obviously, we want to be telling the most important story, and if she has a perspective that helps us get there, even if it’s not what my mind immediately goes to, then great. I’m going to listen to her.
Definitely. Do you think. in newsrooms around America, that those open conversations are happening? And are editors being open to a reporter from that community sharing their perspective and not just shutting them down as being personal?
Feldman: I don’t know what’s happening in newsrooms around the country. I hope that people are listening. I’ve always considered editing to be a job about listening more than anything else.
Has that been your experience prior, working with your own editors?
Feldman: Yes and no. I think that the best editors are the ones who recognize how much their behavior has an impact on other people. I think everyone had an editor who was like, really there, or I guess I hope everyone had an editor who was really there to support them as a human and a journalist at the same time. I don’t know if everyone has. I’ve had both.
In regards to the “8 Time Journalists Reflect on a Year of Covering Stories About Their Communities” piece, were all of the people that shared their stories immediately open and excited — well, excited is a hard word to use because that was such a hard time. Let me rephrase. Were people looking forward to sharing their perspective about such a tough issue or was there hesitancy to participate?
Feldman: There was a mix, for sure. Some people were like “this is already my favorite part of the project, I can’t wait to take part, I know what I’m going to write about.” Some people, I knew from being their colleague and peer that they had a very specific experience that I thought would add something unique and poignant to this mix of stories and I approached them individually and asked if they were interested. I tried not to apply pressure because it’s such a personal thing. But I found in a lot of cases there were writers who absolutely know what they would say, if they felt free to do so. And I felt like my job was to make sure they knew that this was a safe space to do so and to work with them along the way. Actually, a fun fact about this project is that I didn’t turn anyone down. We ran all of the pieces that people wanted to write.
Was there anyone that, after the issue came out, they regretted participating? Or on the opposite end, are the writers who participated feeling more empowered now because of their involvement?
Feldman: No one backtracked; no one expressed any kind of regret. During the process, I had a lot of conversations with people about how different, but exciting, but nerve-wracking ... it was an intense thing for someone to opt into because in many ways it was us calling out our own employer. But the response on the other side from the readers, the writers’ family and friends, and even our own leadership at Time was just so positive. I certainly hope no one regrets it.
Do you think that Time is forever changed because of this project and will continue with this type of coverage and to be open? Or do you think that, as long as you, or people like you, are at Time and continue to fight for this type of coverage that it will continue?
Feldman: I think that Time editors at all levels are really aware and committed. Obviously, individual people are passionate about different things to different degrees. But I don’t think anyone could have gone through this past year without having their perspective shifted at least a little bit. And our top editorial leaders are so committed to hearing feedback and trying to make adjustments. I don’t think that any one person or piece is necessary to keep the whole machine running.
Sanya, I want to go back to your last question: “Am I a representative of my community? Or am I just a reporter that is a part of the community?” Do you feel like you can answer that question? Do you feel like there is an answer to that question?
Mansoor: I feel like, you know, Muslims are not a monolith. So in a lot of ways, I feel like I kind of see myself more as a reporter who happens to be Muslim, as opposed to a reporter who speaks for the Muslim community. Part of my job as a reporter, right, is not to report on my worldview, my specific experience as a Muslim. I have a very specific experience, right? I’m an upper-middle-class Muslim, I don’t wear a hijab, I’m a woman, I’m not black. All of these things are so specific. I’ve gone to Friday prayers, I pray and, personally, it’s an important aspect of my life and worldview, but also within that, I’m very self-aware to know that I have a lived experience of being that kind of Muslim. But I don’t have the lived experience of being a black Muslim or a Muslim who is incarcerated.
These are all very specific experiences and I feel like, as a good reporter, that it’s a balance. I’m drawing on my personal knowledge and experience. For example, and I mentioned this in the essay about the story for COVID-Ramadan. I reached out to the Imam at New York University who I knew from going to Friday prayers there. That was a very easy personal reach out for me to do because I knew everyone knows him and loves him. He put a message out on my behalf and my inbox was flooded with people wanting to talk to me. On the other hand, sometimes I do need to go the extra mile a bit. Like, for the last Ramadan, I did a story on Muslims in prison and the challenges of being Muslim in prison. That one was more tricky, right? Because it’s not like I had colleagues to call up and be like, “hey, can you put me in touch with these people?” I had to do more digging around and talking to people I wasn’t already talking to. But I wanted to tell that story, even though I had no personal experience in that area. I felt like, as a reporter who is Muslim, I wanted to unpack those issues. On one hand, I don’t know what it’s like to be a prisoner during Ramadan, but on the other hand, I do know what Ramadan is like. So in my mind, I’m asking questions like: “Does someone wake them up to eat their pre-dawn meal? Are they getting enough food between those two meals?” So in many ways, I know more than the average person but I don’t know everything.
Well, and that’s the thing: Many people think that, if you’re reporting on a story that you’re close to or a community you’re a part of, that you’re putting your opinion or your experience into the story, but that’s not necessarily true. It can help with contacts, understanding issues, knowing what questions to ask….
Mansoor: It definitely helps, but there are two aspects to it, I think. There’s a practical aspect, which is, for example, contacts and knowing who would be a great person to contact. Also knowing the basics and not having to Wikipedia basic stuff about the religion because it’s stuff I already know. But additionally, I feel like there’s a trust element. Particularly if you’re a community that has not always been represented favorably by the media and you have a skepticism. And I think that is a reasonable skepticism. I feel like this is actually the biggest asset — the trust side, which is not necessarily something that I’m doing. But obviously, you still have to earn people’s trust as well, but it’s in the active small things. For example, if I call someone up and say “As-Salaam-Alaikum” because that’s the way that I greet someone who is Muslim. Instantly, there’s a comfort level.
Beyond that, for example, I’m doing a story right now for the anniversary of 9/11 but it’s actually about the post-9/11 surveillance of Muslims. One of the sources said they were so glad that it’s me writing the story because they really trust me. Just hearing that kind of stuff, I feel like people are less worried about you and they feel like you get it a little bit more. So they feel a little bit less of a need to overexplain or defend. But again, with the caveat that I don’t have every type of Muslim experience — but I do have enough to kind of get at the heart of what people care about. And it’s interesting, because we were kind of debating what direction to go in with our 9/11 coverage and, based on my conversations with some of these sources, I really did actually push back on some ideas the higher editors have raised about the approach we should go in. I mentioned that, based on my conversations with people, that a story about the surveillance would be much more powerful than going with another route. So, yes, there’s practical stuff but then there’s trust, connection, being a part of the community. This is someone that opens up doors and stories and adds a level of depth and understanding.
You are covering a community that has not been fairly represented in Western media, hasn’t been fairly represented in legislation, even in criminal justice issues like experiencing Ramadan in prison. So, can you speak to that? Do you feel like you need to help amplify voices? Do you feel empowered when you’re reporting on the Muslim community because you’re at least portraying a slightly clearer or stronger story than maybe your colleagues would have done?
Mansoor: Yea, so I feel like that’s a really personal question that varies from person to person. I personally feel a sense of agency, and I do want to amplify people’s voices, particularly Muslims who are not, like, the boilerplate spokespeople for the community and kind of just, you know, getting at the heart of some of these issues. But at the same time, I’ll balance that by saying that I don’t think a Muslim reporter who doesn’t want to touch this topic at all is in some way doing something wrong. For example, I was really drawn to doing something for this anniversary and I pitched it and really pushed hard on a particular idea. But I felt like a lot of Muslim-American reporters were like, “I don’t want to be the person who does an anniversary piece.” And I feel like that really falls to the individual reporter to decide if it’s empowering or feels like a chore or deciding if it feels like they’re being tokenized. So it is such a nuanced distinction that only each reporter can make for themselves. For me, I really feel empowered in a sense.
One thing I do sometimes struggle with is that I feel like I’m so immersed in a story while I’m reporting it. I’m 100 percent present and when you finish a story it’s like, you kind of move on from it a little bit and you have to jump to the next thing because there’s only so much you can do as a reporter. Like, I’m not a lawyer. I can’t instantly change policies. Like, for example, after the prison story, I was like: “OK — I wrote this. I had these really personal conversations with these people...” and sometimes there is a little bit of a feeling of helplessness, but you’re happy that you got to amplify that issue and those voices….
Stories That Matter is a series of interviews with the people behind some of the best and most influential journalism being done today, focused on reporting, writing, and lessons we can learn from the process of creating great work.
Additional content and context, added to everything we do.
Predict: What Happens Next
Time magazine is an institution in journalism. Editors and writers like Lucy Feldman, Sanya Mansoor, and all of the other participants in the BIPOC-led issue, represent the shift in thinking that is occurring in the industry.
As a senior editor, Feldman is working to continue to encourage and support all of her writers to write about what they want and what they know — especially the writers who come from communities that have not always been encouraged to do so. Mansoor hopes to continue to be a strong journalist that gets to amplify stories from the Muslim community, working carefully to not speak for the entire nation and not allowing it to define her as a journalist.
Stay Close: A Special Series on Journalists Covering Their Own Communities
Stay Close is a special multi-part series that takes a look at journalists who are covering their own communities, and how their personal ties to the subjects they report on allows them to be stronger confidants and better storytellers.
Read: More Articles and Essays From Mansoor and Feldman at Time
Feldman’s personal essay after the horrific attack on Asian Americans in Atlanta: “‘We Are Always Waiting Our Turn to Be Important.’ A Love Letter to Asian Americans.,” March 18, 2021
Mansoor’s coverage of incarcerated Muslims observing Ramadan: “‘I Don’t Think You’re Going to Be Eating Tonight.’ Muslims Describe Ramadan in U.S. Prisons.,” May 12, 2021
Mansoor’s coverage of post-9/11 surveillance on the Muslim community in America: “‘Who Else Is Spying on Me?’ Muslim Americans Bring the Fight Against Surveillance to the Supreme Court.,” September 16, 2021
Feldman’s essay on how the BIPOC-led issue came together: “The Story Behind Time’s First-Ever BIPOC-Led Issue,” May 13, 2021
Meet: About the Author
Jessica Kantor is a freelance journalist that writes about health/mental health, human rights, and issues facing underrepresented communities. She is a living kidney donor. Her work can be found in Fast Company, What’s Next Magazine, Healthcare Quarterly, and others.